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As migration routes shift toward New Mexico, so does death

In this Jan. 4, 2016, file photo, a U.S. Border Patrol agent patrols Sunland Park along the U.S.-Mexico border next to Ciudad Juarez. A 7-year-old girl who had crossed the U.S.-Mexico border with her father, died after being taken into the custody of the U.S. Border Patrol, federal immigration authorities confirmed. Russell Contreras/AP File Photo
Migrant deaths in the state have jumped from 2 to 109 in a few years

During Captain Abraham Garcia’s first two decades at the Sunland Park, New Mexico, fire department, most of the calls he received were relatively simple to resolve. We sat in a fire station truck on a chilly October evening, waiting for a freight train to pass. About 400 feet of desert lay between the railroad tracks and the U.S.-Mexico border wall. A softspoken man in his late thirties, Garcia described wrangling rattlesnakes and removing beehives. On one occasion, Garcia recalled reassuring a concerned resident that the creature in her yard was not a mountain lion – it was a raccoon.

But around 2017, the year New Mexico’s border wall was built, things started to change. Garcia and the other firefighters found themselves responding to gruesome car crashes, the result of high-speed chases. People fell from the border wall and died from exposure. Sunland Park’s 24 firefighters grew accustomed to seeing open fractures and calling for helicopters to transport victims to hospitals in Las Cruces.

According to U.S. Customs and Border Protection data, 8,050 migrants perished in the Borderlands between 1998 and 2020, though researchers believe the real figure to be much higher, since many remains are never recovered or reported to authorities. Few of those deaths took place in New Mexico: in 2015, for instance, the state’s Office of the Medical Investigator (OMI) counted just two migrant deaths, according to data shared with HCN by a researcher. But in 2021, that number jumped to 36, and in 2022 to 58. This year, there were at least 109 deaths, most of them around Sunland Park, a town of 16,000 amid the creosote and saltbush just nine miles from El Paso, Texas. First responders and medical investigators are adapting, but they desperately need more federal and state support.

An older section of the border wall divides Ciudad Juarez, Mexico from Sunland Park, New Mexico, top, on the outskirts of Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, Tuesday, Jan. 12, 2021. Christian Chavez/AP File Photo

In 1994, the Border Patrol inaugurated a strategy called Prevention Through Deterrence, which increased enforcement at common urban crossing points in order to funnel migrants toward harsher, more remote areas. Many researchers blame this tactic for the rise in deaths. Border enforcement eventually pushed migration routes from southern Arizona the vast ranchlands of Texas, and relatively few people passed through New Mexico. But in recent years, Texas has deployed its National Guard to increase enforcement on its segment of the border, and that in turn appears to have forced migrants over the state line. In early 2023, Border Patrol stated that the El Paso sector – which includes all of New Mexico – was its busiest.

“With this increased enforcement … we are seeing more and more people getting pushed into that area,” said Daniel Martínez, director of the University of Arizona’s Binational Migration Institute, adding that “it probably is an extension of this (situation of) smugglers trying to stay one step ahead of authorities.”

PEOPLE FROM ALL OVER the world cross through Sunland Park, but first responders said they mainly come from Mexico, Brazil, Cuba, Venezuela and Central America. Many have endured a long journey, crossing the treacherous Darién Gap on the Panama-Colombia border and trekking through Central America and across Mexico. Some struggle to acclimate to the high desert climate with its extreme heat and cold; El Paso saw a record-breaking 68 days over 100 degrees Fahrenheit this summer.

Border Patrol agents including four mounted on horseback train to respond to hostile crowds throwing rocks at a border fence on the U.S.-Mexico border on Jan. 31, 2020, in nearby town of Sunland Park, New Mexico. The exercise was part of an annual use-of-force training for agents in the El Paso sector, which covers southern New Mexico and west Texas. Cedar Attanasio/AP File Photo

Though just a few miles – or less – lie between the border and the roads where migrants can be picked up, the terrain is rough. Its openness is disorienting, the sandy soil is hard to walk through, and the topography varies. Those who want to avoid the border wall must traverse Mount Cristo Rey, where there is a gap. “I didn’t understand why they were dying until I started going out there on the (ATV) – I was getting lost,” said García, who has lived in Sunland Park his whole life.

Others die after falling from the wall, or from a combination of injuries and exposure. CT scans conducted by OMI reveal fibula and foot fractures in remains recovered from within a mile of the wall.

“Maybe the dehydration is survivable. Maybe the lack of food is survivable. Maybe the broken ankle is survivable,” said Heather Edgar, OMI’s forensic anthropologist. “But when you put them all together and you're disoriented and you're lost. … It’s not survivable.”

Even if people manage to reach their pickup point, they remain at risk. Between 2017 and 2022, 13 people died in Border Patrol car chases in southern New Mexico. Watchdog organizations such as the Southern Border Communities Coalition and the Washington Office on Latin America have criticized these vehicle pursuits, and after a 2022 fatality in neighboring Santa Teresa, New Mexico, six members of Congress asked the agency to revise its pursuit policy. (Subsequent agency policy changes have not prohibited the chases.)

In response, the Sunland Park Fire Department has retrofitted two all-terrain vehicles, a Polaris Ranger and a Humvee, with body stretchers and doubled the number of firefighters on duty at a time. But all this comes out of the department’s operating budget, and though Chief Daniel Medrano would like to do more and provide his staff formal training in search and rescue, he said he lacks the resources. Even when the fire department assists the Border Patrol, a federal agency, it receives no additional funding.

“I’m throwing my hands up and giving up on federal help,” Medrano said. “We’re told constantly to apply for grants. … Larger cities have grant writers on staff that can help with that. I do not.”

At OMI, the office’s autopsy and anthropology workload has grown, according to Edgar, the forensic anthropologist. OMI has received federal grants for some migrant-death related work, but its operations have been strained by the number of deaths, and it needs additional funding from the state to hire more local field investigators, increase storage space and pay for DNA analysis.

Edgar is also working to improve the identification process, using research that started with missing and murdered Indigenous people. From 2016 until this October, New Mexico had a task force dedicated to developing protocols to better respond to Indigenous deaths. Contemporary forensic databases have not prioritized collecting data regarding Indigenous, Hispanic and mixed-race people from the U.S. and Latin America. Because forensic anthropology develops biological profiles by comparing remains to reference samples, this has hampered efforts to resolve cases in the region.

Still, the work continues thanks to grant funding. Edgar hopes to encourage other anthropologists to rethink their understanding of population affinity – the features shared by cultural groups – and to incorporate not only biological, but also ethnographic and historical information, in developing forensic profiles for unidentified people.

“If we can improve identification for Native Americans,” Edgar said, “at the same time, we will improve it for Hispanic Americans in the Southwest and for migrants.”

ON THE WAY BACK to the station, the truck radio alerted García to a fire in the Rio Grande’s dry riverbed. The smoke plume was blowing toward the nearby El Paso Electric plant. This wasn’t normal, he said. He turned on the truck’s lights and raced down the highway.

When we arrived, García quickly let me out. From a nearby road, I watched as the eight firefighters on duty that evening sprayed the orange flames with water and foam from the department’s two trucks.

After the fire was contained, another member of the department explained that they had found clothing nearby. A cold front had arrived suddenly that day, and migrants most likely started a fire, trying to get warm while waiting to be picked up.

Responding to the fire, like responding to migrant deaths, used yet more resources and manpower. Many Republicans and some Democrats argue that U.S. tax dollars shouldn’t be spent saving undocumented non-citizens. Edgar sees it differently.

“Our country steps into humanitarian crises all over the world,” she said. “Why would we not do it inside our own boundaries?”

This story was originally published in High Country News and republished here with permission. Caroline Tracey is a journalist who covers the Southwestern U.S., Mexico and their Borderlands. In 2022-2023, she was High Country News’ Climate Justice Fellow. She lives in Tucson, Arizona. Follow her on Twitter @ce_tracey.

Workers prepare the foundation for a steel section of border wall that will be built on the Mexican side of older metal fencing dividing Ciudad Juarez, Mexico from Sunland Park, New Mexico, in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, Tuesday, Jan. 12, 2021. Christian Chavez/AP File Photo
A no-trespassing sign installed by the city of Sunland Park is seen in 2019. The city put up the sign to discourage citizen immigration patrols by members of the United Constitutional Patriots. The group gained national attention after filming themselves detaining immigrants who cross the border to the east where the wall ends. Cedar Attanasio/AP File Photo